by Brice Smith
I am an African and Indigenous American flutist. Each time I open my flute case, I am reminded that to be a musician is a gift, and carries responsibility. “Play beautifully, with intention” is my mantra for every performance I give or lesson I teach. Beauty lies beyond the notes on the page. Beauty is the connection of performer and audience when the sublime is mutually experienced from the music. What began as a phrase to relieve performance anxiety has since proven to be quintessential in my life as a flutist.
I am frightened and appalled by the global pandemic COVID-19 and the constant racial injustices in the United States. I am saddened that it took a national quarantine to collectively begin acknowledging the value of Black lives in this country. It is my hope that the national momentum to rectify systemic racism and discrimination will be reflected in the classical music and flute communities. Vigorous programming and commissioning of pieces by composers of Color is essential. Our repertoire should reflect the rich diversity of this country. That is how we create beauty with intention in music.
Growing up, I found it odd that Black music is celebrated globally across multiple genres, yet is highly unrecognized in classical music circles. Many talented Black musicians were taught that the possibility of a career in classical music is slim. If we are to be successful in performance or academia, we must be twice as skilled and prepared as the musicians of other races around us, present ourselves with a soft-spoken demeanor, and smile! Those characteristics are universally accepted as non-threatening and help people of Color assimilate into those spaces, however, the pressure to present this way daily is exhausting and causes us to feel unwelcome.
This is a time for reflection in the flute and classical music communities to not only acknowledge the racial and social injustices in this country but to fight for equality on and off the stage. Each of us must do the hard work to ensure that every single life is equally valued regardless of race, gender, or orientation. We must dismantle the structures and systems entrenched in our culture that disenfranchise Black and Indigenous People of Color. Positive change is happening but on a minuscule level. Aside from the occasional “diversity” concert, musicians rarely perform or engage with pieces by any composers of Color. It is my experience that music written by Black composers is deemed lackluster and technically insufficient. That is simply not true. Therefore, I challenged myself by asking, “What will I do to help change the trajectory of those beliefs?”
The great pianist and singer Nina Simone stated that “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”* Of all the pieces the collective flute community has programmed for recitals, how many of those were by Black composers? It is a misconception that musicians may seek out one piece by a famous non-white composer and therefore consider their program as “diverse.” It is no longer enough to pride ourselves on how many Black composers we can name. Excellent diverse music spans far beyond Astor Piazzolla, Tōru Takemitsu, and Valerie Coleman. The effort to research, play or teach flute pieces by Black composers and other composers of Color falls short. I adore “standard” repertoire just as much as the next flutist, but to only program those pieces is a disservice to the incredible creativity and brilliance of our diverse flute community. It is my desire and duty to reflect the times by commissioning underrepresented and marginalized composers in classical music.
In June of 2020, I was offered an opportunity to perform a piece for the National Flute Association’s Summer Series. After combing through my repertoire, I was instead inspired to commission a solo flute piece by an outstanding Black composer. I immediately thought of Carlos Simon. Carlos and I both attended the University of Michigan, where he was a doctoral composition student of Michael Daugherty and Evan Chambers, while I was a master’s student of Amy Porter. Carlos currently serves on the music faculty of Georgetown University and enjoys an active career as a composer. His résumé is extensive, including having released a highly acclaimed album of his compositions, titled My Ancestor’s Gift. Carlos was also recently commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra, composing Fate Now Conquerors for orchestra. Our core musical values and faith in the progress of expanding classical music repertoire align. Carlos characterizes his newly commissioned piece for solo flute as “a syncopated joy ride. I want to explore the percussive and rhythmic nature of the flute; something moves with energy and forward motion. I’m so excited to be working with Brice and am grateful for those who supported this commission.”
The flute and classical music communities met our enthusiasm by fully funding the solo flute commission for the NFA Summer Series within two hours! In fact, the commission has now reached nearly three times the goal. I believe this response speaks to the strength of our mission. There is power right now for change, and that is my mantra manifested. The outpouring of encouragement and support from musicians and classical music allies has inspired me to expand the commission project. I am very excited to officially announce a new album initiative, featuring incredible works by Black composers! Carlos’ solo piece will be featured on the recording. The original GoFundMe will be revised to include this initiative, and as promised, the Black Lives Matter chapter of Denver, Colorado will receive a substantial gift donation.
New and diverse flute repertoire is essential to the survival of our art. To commission new works is to value the musical voices of our community. For a child learning to play the flute, seeing music written or performed by someone with the same color of skin as them can be the difference between continuing to pursue music or quitting. I was not made aware of any Black professional flutists until I was eighteen years of age. It was not until I first saw the Imani Winds and Harlem Quartet perform over twelve years ago that I recognized a piece of me had been missing. Music written by Black composers is beautiful! I am eternally grateful for Black musicians like Valerie Coleman, Demarre McGill, Hubert Laws, Jennifer Grim, Nathalie Joachim, Allison-Loggins Hull and so many others that came before me. I am also inspired by the genius of my Black flutist peers and am empowered that my voice through the flute is cherished in the flute community. It is my wish to impart that same strength and faith to young aspiring flutists.
I want to thank all of my family, friends, and teachers who support my inquisitive thirst for knowledge and vibrant bursts of discussion about Diversity and Inclusion initiatives.
If you have not already, check out Brice’s homage to his Indigenous heritage, a new composition created in partnership by both composer, Zachary Patten and Brice Smith, titled Arikaree. (recording, editing, and visuals by Zachary Patten)
Dr. Brice Smith has a deep passion for teaching and engaging communities through classical music. He has performed in several professional ensembles, including the Colorado Symphony, New World Symphony, and National Repertory Orchestra. As a soloist, Smith has performed at the John F. Kennedy Center, with the Arkansas Philharmonic and University of Michigan Camerata Symphony Orchestra. He has performed at the National Flute Association's Convention as a member of the Colorado Flute Orchestra, and is scheduled to premiere solo flute works this summer for the National Flute Association’s Summer Series and Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music “Gig Thru COVID.” As a collegiate music instructor, Smith has taught masterclasses and lessons for the University of Arkansas, Adams State University, Siena Heights University, the Crescendo Detroit program for young students in the performing arts, and most recently was a guest artist and lecturer for the Texas Summer Flute Symposium. Administratively, he currently serves as an executive board member for the Texas Flute Society, has held the position of Artistic and Development Assistant for the Crested Butte Music Festival, and Student Engagement Specialist for the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at the University of Colorado Boulder. Smith is a founding member of the Boulder Altitude Directive (BAD Ensemble) new music ensemble, conducted by Dr. Carter Pann. He completed a Doctor of Musical Arts in Flute Performance and Pedagogy at the University of Colorado Boulder with Christina Jennings, a Master of Music in Flute Performance and a Master of Music in Chamber Music at the University of Michigan with Amy Porter, as well as a Performer Diploma at Indiana University under the direction of Thomas Robertello. Smith studied with Ronda Mains at the University of Arkansas, where he completed a Bachelor of Music in Flute Performance, Violin Performance and German language.